Race & Place: How Urban Geography Shapes the Journey to Reconciliation

By David P. Leong, IVP Books, 2017. 208 pages. $16/paperback; $15.99/eBook.

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I couldn’t put down David Leong’s guide because it is so full of hope that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice can redeem the most oppressed people in the most neglected places. He channels the Martin Luther King Jr. of Where Do we Go From Here: Chaos or Community? and the Jane Jacobs of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, with Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society added for good measure.

David Leong is less a literary stylist than a plain old storyteller. He weaves together biblical parables, urban history, and personal anecdotes, traveling back and forth in time and space. His voice is learned yet down to earth. And Leong helps us retread the holy ground on which Jesus walked—from race to place, whether Gentile or Jew, Galilee or Jerusalem.

This remarkable story of joining with a cultural other is rightfully woven into the genealogy of Jesus, whose life was marked by all the same surprising transgressions of racial logic and cultural order that defined his day and age….Simply identifying with those at the bottom of the societal ladder as your people is an urgent…challenge for the parish church [to incarnate Jesus Christ] in the city.

For example, long before Detroit went bust, the county fathers built a barrier in the north end to demarcate the city from the suburbs. Having lived in Detroit, Leung is all about tearing down walls between people. If, as he writes, “Jesus is the bridge between the particularity of Jerusalem and the universality of God’s presence in all the places where God’s people dwell,” we need divine intervention to straighten out real estate cycles and level income inequality.

As a city planner who’s devoted his life to uplifting those “down in the dumps,” whether they like it or not, I was challenged by Leong, a Chinese American teacher of urban missionaries, to look at my middle-class whiteness in the mirror of entitlement.

An Asian American caught between discrimination and opportunity, Leong sees the world in shades of gray rather than black and white. He’s all for prayer before taking action but sometimes fails to follow his own advice, or, as he quotes singer Johnny Cash, it’s possible to become “so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good.” Unfortunately, he spends more time addressing his own shortcomings and those of his evangelical brethren than engaging in honest dialogue with folks on the outside of those walls. This is the challenge he identifies so well and struggles to undertake.

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